Emperor  of  the  U S A

In the second half of the 19th century, an eccentric, impoverished Englishman - who proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico" - won the hearts of the people of San Francisco.

Joshua Abraham Norton was born in Shropshire in about 1815. In 1820, his parents John and Sarah emigrated from England to South Africa, where they built up a small fortune. This allowed Joshua Norton to emigrate to the United States, and in 1849 he arrived in San Francisco with $40,000 to invest.

He set up several successful property businesses before moving into commodities - specifically rice. There were a large number of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and consequently a huge and consistent demand for rice. Even better for Norton, China had just embargoed rice exports because of famine. As a result, the price of rice in San Francisco had rocketed from 9 to 79 cents a kilo. Norton decided to gamble his fortune in 91 tonnes of rice from Peru. But he had not reckoned on other people having the same idea. The Japanese business community had also organised rice shipments and, before long, the market was saturated - and prices plummeted. By 1858, Norton was bankrupt.


This financial disaster seems to have disturbed Norton's mental equilibrium. Until then, he had not been noted for his eccentricity, but his bankruptcy led to a bizarre proclamation. On September 17, 1859, Joshua Norton appointed himself 'Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico'.

Norton sent his investiture speech in a letter to various newspapers - but no one published it. Nevertheless, the emperor took his new role very seriously, regularly inundating the

(Emperor Norton proposed many ambitious projects including the building of a bridge across San Francisco Bay. The Bay Bridge eventually opened in 1936, more than half a century after Norton's death)

newspapers with decrees, some of which were published. As time went on, Norton's 'imperial directives' sold papers - people enjoyed reading the latest edicts from his eccentric majesty.

In one, Norton reorganised the political system of the United States, announcing on October 12, 1859, that the US Congress had been dissolved. 'It has come to Our attention,' he wrote, 'that the principle of universal suffrage has been abused, and that deceit and corruption are preventing the fair and legitimate expression of the will of the people...'

When Congress continued to function as normal, Norton was livid. In July 1860, he dissolved the Republic and declared that the country would henceforth be governed by a monarchy. Finally, in August 1869, in view of the continued defiance of the politicians, he decreed that both the Democratic and the Republican Parties were to be abolished.

Although Norton had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as his deferential treatment in San Francisco, the people around him humoured him, referring to him as His Imperial Majesty and even honouring the worthless currency he had issued in his name.

Not everyone treated Norton with tolerant indulgence. Armand Barbier, a policeman recently arrived in San Francisco, had little time for the self-appointed ruler. He believed that anyone who thought that he was emperor of the United States needed his head examining and should be detained. Norton's arrest caused a public outcry, and before long a judge and the local police chief had arrived at the police station, made a formal apology and released the emperor. From then on, Norton was greeted by every police officer in the city with a military salute.


Not all his decrees dealt with national politics. In 1872, Norton announced that he was sick of the corrupted, abbreviated names that many people used for San Francisco, his adopted home. 'Whoever uses the dreadful term "Frisco"... is guilty of a serious misdemeanour,' he wrote, 'and liable to a fine of $25, payable to the Imperial Treasury department.' This type of pronouncement simply caused amusement. 

Others were more visionary: Norton advocated the formation of a kind of United Nations and condemned religious sectarian conflict.

Some of his more practical suggestions were years ahead of his time. On several occasions, he ordered the building of a bridge to link Oakland and San Francisco, but to his great annoyance, the instruction was ignored.

One particular act of courage earned Norton the respect of his fellow citizens. During the 1860s and 1870s, there were frequent attacks on Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. On one occasion, a gang was making its way to Chinatown, spoiling for a fight. All of a sudden, the men were confronted by a lone figure. Joshua Norton said nothing and did nothing. He simply stood there wearing an old blue army uniform, decorated with gold buttons and epaulettes. He bowed his head, as if he was praying. The gang came to a standstill, said nothing and then dispersed.


The emperor's daily life was, by and large, pretty uneventful. Accompanied by his two dogs Lazarus and Brummer, he walked

(Thousands of Chinese migrated to California during the gold rush of the 1850s. At first they mostly lived in rural areas where they worked in mines or on farms but within a few years a Chinese neighbourhood had sprung up in San Francisco. During the economic slump in the 1870s, the Chinese - who had been the victims of prejudice since the days of the gold rush - became a scapegoat for thousands of unemployed whites)

the streets, inspecting the state of pavements and public utilities, listening to people's troubles and making philosophical speeches. Sometimes he ate in good restaurants and was always served politely - although the proprietors knew that they would be paid in Norton's own worthless currency. Indeed many shops and restaurants found that if they displayed signs in their windows proclaiming 'By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States', their trade improved.

Norton was also given complementary tickets to every theatre production - not only for himself but also for his two dogs.

In an official census, Joshua Norton is listed with his title of 'Emperor'.

When there was nothing showing in the theatres, the trio attended lectures given in the Academy of Sciences. On January 8, 1880, Norton was on his way to one of these lectures when he collapsed in the street. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle's front page headline read: 'Le Roi est Mort'.

Norton's legacy was $10 in cash, a collection of walking sticks, his correspondence with Queen Victoria - to whom he had offered his hand in marriage - and shares in a worthless goldmine. But the citizens of San Francisco dug into their own pockets to pay for a proper funeral. On the day, the shops closed, a long procession of mourners filed to the cemetery and a crowd of more than 10,000 people paid their last respects. The next day, a newspaper leader article stated that the world would be a far better place if all rulers were as philanthropically minded and honourable as Joshua Norton.